Special Education

What a Day in the Life of a Special Education Teacher Actually Looks Like

What a Day in the Life of a Special Education Teacher Actually Looks Like
We're really good at multitasking. Image from Unsplash
Tim Villegas profile
Tim Villegas September 27, 2019

Ten hour days. Zero downtime. A personal soundtrack? Highly recommended.

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While teachers are known for cultivating young minds and bestowing knowledge, their work isn’t as easy as it sounds. Every day, teachers aim to gain a better understanding of their students and inspire their love of learning. While special education teachers have similar goals, we also have practices and perspectives that set us apart from typical educators.

Take a few moments to walk in our shoes, to see what we see.

5AM: Wake Up

We don’t hit the snooze button if we can help it. We know that the earlier we get up, the more time we’ll have to enjoy a cup of coffee, ponder something inspirational, or make ourselves look fabulous.

Even at this hour, it’s not unusual for the concerns of the day to creep in and begin weighing on our mind. How will we help Kevin make progress on his reading comprehension goals? How can we provide support for Mia during transitions today?

Not so fast. There’s more to accomplish this morning.



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6AM: Take Care of Business

Time to wake up the kids and make the lunches. Sometimes we’ll answer an email or two knowing that on most days, an inbox chock full of requests from administrators and parents are waiting for us.

After attending to backpacks, lunch boxes, and inboxes, it’s time to head out the door. Can we get another coffee? Maybe three?

7AM: Pregame Warmup

By now we’re headed to school by whatever means of transportation we choose. Travel time will vary, but for trips lasting longer than 20 minutes, we turn on a podcast or a Spotify playlist of “pump-up” songs. We’re a sucker for “Brave” by Sara Bareilles because let’s face it, it’s who we are.

Time to get our head in the game. We head to the side door of the school, unlocking it with our badge. Feeling energized, we walk down the hall towards our desk to drop off our stuff. As a special education teacher, we typically don’t have classrooms of our own. Our desk is in a small group classroom, but we’re rarely ever there.

Over the loudspeaker, we hear “All staff, please report to the front office this afternoon for a short staff meeting.” Susan, a teacher for over 30-years, just announced her retirement.

8AM: Game Time

Cue the children. We float around the classroom, a fourth-grade “homeroom.”

We make an extra effort to say hello to kids who need some positive attention. Once instruction starts, we give additional support to students who are struggling with math. These students will stay with us through the next segment of the day.

9AM: Co-Teaching Math

“But this is too hard!” A fourth-grade student tears up their paper and throws their pencil on the ground. We remind them of their calming strategies, one of which is to breathe slowly while counting down from ten. While the student calms down, we move through the activity at hand, which involves 25 or so students—and fractions. We’re really good at multitasking.

In class, we use the team-teaching approach, in which special education and general education teachers plan and prepare lessons together. Typically, special education teachers aren’t given a planning period, so we’ll spend time planning after school the school day ends.

10AM: Small Group Reading

We head to the group reading classroom to work with eight students who have a variety of needs, including learning disabilities, autism, and attention issues. Three grade levels—third, fourth, and fifth—are represented.

Two students require the support of a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP). One has a token economy, where they earn tokens or “school dollars” for completing their work and behaving in desired ways. Today we’re concerned with Kevin, a fifth-grader, and teach him a strategy to get the most out of his reading. He loves fast cars, so we use a graphic organizer shaped like an Aston Martin Vanquish to organize information and see the relationships between ideas.

11AM: Co-Teaching Writing

The class is discussing topics for writing an opinion essay. A third-grade student uses an Augmentative Alternative Communication (AAC) device to speak. We’re still learning how to help support them, but we give it our best shot.

Since the student using AAC requires our help the most, we spend the entire segment working with them. We have eight other students on our caseload, and it’s challenging to assist them all. It concerns us, and we wonder if the other students are getting the support they need.

12PM: Lunch

It’s already that time? Running to the teacher’s lounge to heat last night’s leftovers, we wonder if Mia will be able to handle the transition to lunch today. Yesterday, she yelled and pushed the student in front of her because they weren’t walking fast enough down the hall.

Afterward, we provided her with visuals to remind her of the expected behavior in the hallways. As we exit the teacher’s lounge, Mia is sitting happily and eating with her class. We breathe a sigh of relief and make a note to use visuals with her more often.

1PM: Specials/Connections

If we were a general education teacher, we’d typically get a planning period around this time. Instead, we use this segment to provide support to students in gym class.

Today, we assist a student who uses a wheelchair to navigate an obstacle course that the physical ed teacher has set up for the class. Phew! It’s a workout for both of us.

2PM: Dismissal

The dismissal bell won’t ring for another 15 minutes, so we help with a fifth-grade social studies lesson, where Kevin needs some extra help organizing his backpack and writing down his homework.

Afternoon announcements play over the loudspeaker and remind students that tomorrow, they can dress up as a character from their favorite book—as long as their costume is school appropriate. Sorry, “Captain Underpants” fans, those are just the rules.

3PM: Afterschool Staff Meeting

The busses are gone, and teachers stream through the doors of the media center to take a seat for the staff meeting. Cake and coffee are passed, and Susan gets many hugs and high fives.

Someone from the district gives a presentation about school-wide test scores. We pretend to be listening while checking our personal email, and we know our coworkers won’t judge us for it.

4PM: Planning

We spend time going over lesson plans with our fourth-grade teaching counterpart. Coming up at the end of the first grading period, we’re responsible for writing up progress reports on Individualized Education Program (IEP) goals and objectives.

We hope the intervention we used with Kevin today is going to make the difference with his reading comprehension goals. Our arms are sore from gym class. We earned that slice of cake.

5PM: Quitting Time

After our planning time, we grab our stuff, make any final preparations for tomorrow, and get to our mode of transportation.

We focus on the wins of the day instead of the mistakes, especially if they were out of our control. We turn to Spotify for a mellower playlist to help wind down from the stress and bustle of school.

6PM: Home

Family time consists of helping our kids with their homework, doing laundry, and prepping for dinner. An evening cup of coffee sounds nice. Maybe some tea instead.

7PM: Dinner

Dinner is easy tonight. Pasta and meatballs are just what the doctor ordered. We’ll even add on a bit of salad. It cancels out the cake from today’s staff meeting, right?

8PM: Check Email

We know that we’re not supposed to take work home, but we barely had a chance to check our work email today. Our administrator needs us to come to see them first thing in the morning to discuss a discipline issue with Mia—and like that, we immediately wish we had followed our own rules.

9:00 PM: Personal Time

The kids are in bed, the dishes done, and the laundry folded. We sit on the couch to unwind. Ten minutes later, we’re dozing off.

Time for bed, but not before thinking, “Back at it tomorrow. We have the best job in the world.”

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Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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Categorized as: Special EducationEducation & Teaching